“Sustainable” Certified Herring: A Long Swim Ahead to True Sustainability

by the Ecology Action Centre’s Marine Team

Last week the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified Canada’s largest herring fishery as “sustainable and well-managed”. Despite this eco-check mark, the Ecology Action Centre continues to be concerned about this fishery. This herring stock is still at low levels and is classified by Canadian government as being ‘in the cautious zone’ with only very preliminary evidence of any rebuilding. Management has continued to set risky catch limits which is even greater concern for fish that are a key prey species.

Until a strong trend of rebuilding is established, we think it’s premature for this fishery to get the MSC sustainability check mark. An MSC certification allows fisheries to sell at a premium price based on the premise that they are going above and beyond to be sustainable and will continue to make improvements. However, we fear that this fishery is lower than the bar that consumers expect.

4VWX Herring

Herring are in a special class of fish called forage fish and also called small pelagics. These fish are an important source of food or prey for fish species higher up in the marine food chain. They provide an important link by transferring energy from plankton, up to larger predator species. Studies have suggested that forage fish are more valuable kept in the water as prey for other important species than as directed catch due to their ability to support the production of other commercial fisheries.

Due to the complicated nature of herring stocks, Atlantic Canada’s herring fisheries are assessed and managed by dividing the fisheries into different areas – the Scotian Fundy Region, also known as area 4VWX, contains the fishery that has now been MSC certified.

captureThe specific “Southwest Nova Scotia/Bay of Fundy” spawning component of Atlantic herring, one of the two areas within 4VWX occupied by the now MSC certified herring fishery, is particularly significant. It supports a diverse fishery, and landings of herring in this area are significantly higher than anywhere else in the surrounding area, so this component of the fishery is especially deserving of attention.

The herring caught in this fishery are sold as a number of products – direct consumption, reduction to fish meal and oil, and for bait in the lobster fishery, the region’s most lucrative. Beyond human uses, herring is an important food source for many of the region’s important predators including whales, sharks and bluefin tuna.

Earlier this year, DFO decided to maintain the quota for this fishery at 50,000 metric tonnes for the 2016/2017 fishing year. We’ve expressed our concern about this in the past, namely that this quota is too high for a stock in the cautious zone and that needs rebuilding.

Continued Improvement?

The MSC requires that each certified fishery undergoes an annual audit by an independent certifier “allowing it to progress toward an even higher level of sustainability.” Specific to the 4VWX herring stock, MSC asserts that “the fishery has committed to meet improvement goals with respect to biomass levels, to help the 4VWX herring stock sustain its role in the ecosystem.”


With its certification, MSC has only put in place one binding condition that the fishery must achieve in order to be re-certified in future – the establishment of scientific reference points. This is now considered basic best practice for fisheries management that should already be in place before a fishery is considered for certification, in order to properly assess the status of a stock and determine whether or not fishing levels are sustainable. This is far from the comprehensive plan for the recovery of the herring stock that is needed. Nor is it the type of exemplary practice that deserves to a to be awarded with a special eco-certification.

800px-herring_catch-sep200The assessment report instead includes a number of recommendations to improve the fishery. As stakeholders in this process, the Ecology Action Centre gave clear input that these should have been in place before certification or, at the least, be binding conditions that the fishery be obligated to undertake as is the case for many fisheries already certified with conditions in Canada. In the end, MSC gave the certification with little to ensure there will be any of the much needed improvements.  We can only hope the recommendations given by the assessment team will be taken seriously, for the sake of the fishery’s future.

The recommendations:

  • Conducting more tagging studies to better understand the stock
  • Increasing data collection for bait and recreational fisheries for herring, which are thus far unmonitored, for input into stock assessments
  • Closely monitor catches of mackerel (another important forage species of concern) by date and location
  • Seriously discuss role of herring in ecosystem, as well as consider ecosystem trends and potential threats, define comprehensive ecosystem goals and map out a fisheries management strategy to address ecosystem requirements for herring as an important part of the marine ecosystem in the region
  • Updating the Integrated Fisheries Management Plan for the Southwest Nova Scotia/Bay of Fundy stock.

Unfortunately missing from the certification, is a push to ensure DFO prioritizes rebuilding this stock by setting quotas that consider the needs of the ecosystem and not just the fishery. Ecosystem based management is difficult, but needs to be in place especially when trying to mitigate our fisheries’ impact on forage fish like herring that are key prey species. This stock of herring supports many species as well as many livelihoods, not just the direct fishery, but also is essential for our lobster fishery to continue.


MSC needs to ensure the annual audits do indeed show the promised improvement in the stock health in order for the fishery to keep this eco-label.  The certification of this fishery prematurely and without strong conditions is a lost opportunity for MSC catalyze the type of change needed in how we fish.

Read more about EAC’s recommendations on the management of Atlantic Canadian forage fish.

The Marine team works on improving fisheries for species big and small, and hopes to clear up some of the misconceptions around eco-certification you’ve been “herring” about.


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